If you’re a regular reader of this site, it will not take you by surprise to learn that the 1933 Best Picture Nominee, 42nd Street, is one of my favorite films of all time.
I mean, how couldn’t it be? Not only is it a pre-Code film (and we all know that pre-Code films were the best) and one the features both Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell in early roles but it’s also a film that depicts the backstage world of a stage musical with such a combination of love and snark that it will be familiar to everyone from community theater nerds to Broadway veterans. 42nd Street is a classic musical, though I have to admit that I think the majority of the songs are a bit overrated. Even more importantly, 42nd Street is the ultimate dance film. The film’s big production number, choreographed and filmed in the brilliant and flamboyant Busby Berkeley style, is such an iconic moment that it’s still being imitated and lovingly parodied to this day.
Every dance movie owes a debt to 42nd Street but few have come close to matching it. Remember how much we all hated Smash? There were a lot of reasons to hate Smash but the main reason was because it tried to be 42nd Street and it failed. There can only be one 42nd Street.
It’s hard to estimate the number of show business clichés that currently exist as a result of 42nd Street. Then again, it can be argued that they were clichés before they showed up in 42nd Street but 42nd Street handled them in such an expert fashion that they were transformed from being urban legends to immortal mythology.
42nd Street takes place in the backstage world, following the production of a Broadway musical through casting to rehearsals to opening night. It’s an ensemble piece, one populated by all the usual suspects. Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is the down-on-his-luck producer who desperately needs a hit. Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) is the celebrated star who is dating a rich, older man (Guy Kibbee, who made quite the career out playing rich, older men) while secretly seeing her ex, a down-on-his-luck Vaudevillian (George Brent). From the minute that we first see Dorothy, we know that she’s eventually going to end up with a boken ankle. It’s just a question of which chorus girl will be promoted to take her place. Will it be “Anytime” Annie (Ginger Rogers) or will it be the naive and wholesome Peggy (Ruby Keeler)? You already know the answer but it’s still fun to watch.
If you had any doubts that this was a pre-code film, the fact that Ginger Rogers is playing a character named “Anytime” Annie should answer them. 42nd Street is often described as being a light-hearted camp spectacle but there’s a cynicism to the film, a cynicism that could only be expressed during the pre-code era. The dialogue is full of lines that, just a few years later, would never have gotten past the censors.
(This is the film where it’s said that Anytime Annie “only said no once and then she didn’t hear the question!” This is also the film where Guy Kibbee cheerfully tells Annie that what he does for her will depend on what she does for him. Just try to get away with openly acknowleding the casting couch in 1936!)
The menacing shadow of the Great Depression looms over every glossy production number. Julian needs a hit because he lost all of his money when the Stock Market crashed and if the show is not a hit, everyone involved in the production will be out on the streets. The chorus isn’t just dancing because it’s their job. They’re dancing because it’s an escape from the grim reality of the Great Depression and, for the audience watching, the production numbers provided a similar escape. 42nd Street said, “Yes, life is tough. But sometimes life is fun. Sometimes life is sexy. Sometimes, life is worth the trouble.” Someday, 42nd Street promises, all the misery will be worth it.
Ultimately, 42nd Street is all about that iconic, 20-minute production number:
42nd Street was nominated for best picture but it lost to the nearly forgotten Cavalcade.